American River Archive | Edward Morris & Susannah Sayler

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The American River Archive tells the story of a single flow of water in present-day California from origin to end-use. The project is a form of historiography and a form of allegory in which this one strand of California’s vast waterworks becomes the means of a broader exploration into an Age of Extraction that appears near its culmination. As a whole, the project will consist of original photography, writing, historical images, analysis and images of speculative futures, audio and maps compiled into a book and exhibitions. As with other water flows in the West, the “American River” is no longer a river at all, but an elongated site of capture and distribution, with a definite beginning but diffuse end.  The water is apportioned and owned the moment it comes out of the ground.


The following is an interim report on findings, quandaries and possible directions:

In November 2014, we came to California with the expectation of documenting drought conditions as part of our ongoing A History of the Future project. A History of the Future consists of landscape photographs in places impacted by or vulnerable to climate change that are then combined with archival images, video or installation elements to examine various aspects of the climate change crisis.

However, a number of factors led us to the creation of a more involved, stand-alone project called the American River Archive. As we dug into our research we discovered that climate change is only part of the complex water story in California. That story includes a massive terraforming project that rivals the currently proposed colonization of Mars, the promotion of the West by railroads and other vested interests, the questionable labor and farming practices of large-scale industrial agriculture, blind faith in technology vs. a neo-primitivism, and the contemporary mythologization of California as paradise such that populations have exploded beyond the carrying capacity of the land. In short, a microcosm of the Age of Extraction.

To address these complex themes and to move the project outside of an exclusive focus on climate change, we decided to explore a single flow of water in California. The idea was to follow the water from its origins in the mountains to its technological containment in dams, canals and pumping stations, and ultimately to its end use in agriculture, homes, businesses, etc. After some deliberation we decided to start our story with the headwaters of the South Fork of the American River near Echo Summit. After emerging from the high mountains, the river flows through Coloma, where gold was first “discovered,” to Folsom Dam, through land formerly populated by the Nisenan Maidu, through the city of Sacramento where it meets the Sacramento River and then into the Delta. From there the water is extracted by the Tracy Pumping Plant and siphoned into the Delta Mendota Canal from whence it makes its way to the San Luis Reservoir. From San Luis the water goes every which way – to Silicon Valley, to big Agriculture in the Westlands Water District, to the San Luis Wildlife Refuge, etc. We decided to focus, at least for the time being, exclusively on agriculture. Here is a sample of images showing that transition, see below at the end of this article for a fuller slide show with a voiceover.

We chose the American River as a starting point over rivers such as the Merced (which would incorporate the iconic Yosemite Valley) the Sacramento (which begins in the supremely picturesque Mt. Shasta region), or the Owens (which is the site of the quintessential California water story) for a variety of reasons. The American offers a relatively compact run through a great diversity of landscapes, including urban. It has a great name for a title that allows the project to function allegorically.   It is relatively free from the mythologies of previous treatments (the principal problem with the Owens or the Merced). However, the most significant factor in choosing the American is the fact that gold was discovered on it, which led to the hysterical stampede to mine this fetishized metal, to real estate speculation, to the initial wave of mass human migration to California and to the formation of a bubble economy, which we have seen many times since. In important ways, the nascent economic structures erected to capitalize on gold evolved to capitalize on land suitable for agriculture. This historical data has become a pivot point for the project.

Our interest in California’s water management coincided with a growing interest in the notion of the artist as historian, in particular a materialist historian as outlined by Benjamin. “For the materialist historian, every epoch with which he occupies himself is only prehistory for the epoch he himself must live in.”[1] A documentation of the river leads to an examination of the gold rush and the examination of the gold rush in turn leads back to an examination of our present water management which in turns leads to an examination of speculative economies, labor, and the ideology of extraction. It is not so much that the past is interpreted in light of the present as the past is remade in a dialectic conversation with the present with a view towards transformative futures. As Matthew Buckingham, who is another central inspiration to the direction of this project, puts it:

“Benjamin describes the vanishing point of history as always being the present moment. This formulation of history—thinking about the present moment as the point where history vanishes—is a way of reversing the received notion of history as vanishing somewhere behind us, vanishing into a nonexistent time, a time that no longer exists. [Benjamin’s notion] forces us to confront history as a construction. It implies that when we reconsider past events, we’re not so much returning to another time and retrieving material or events. We are restaging those events here and now in order to think about what’s happening here and now, to think about the present.[2]

Why is this mode of historiography particularly open to artistic methods and what are these methods? First, considering historical inquiry as a contingent narrative, allows for the collapse of binding distinctions between fact and fiction. We believe, like Walid Raad, that history is best told not through “crude facticity but through the complicated mediations by which facts acquire their immediacy.”[3] This calls for some negative capability and the discipline of “art” within the humanities is nothing if not for that mode of inquiry that allows for the “being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Accuracy is a tone not a precision point. Second, the materialist mode of historiography finds its method in the gathering together of images, particularly constellations of images or “dialectical images” that “flash up” like memories in a moment of danger. Here again is Benjamin:

“It is not that what is past casts its light on what is present, or what is present its light on what is past; rather, image is that wherein what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation.  In other words, image is dialectics at a standstill.  For while the relation of the present to the past is a purely temporal one, continuous one, the relation of what-has-been to the now is dialectical: is not progression but image, suddenly emergent.”[4]

“To articulate what is past does not mean to recognize “how it really was.” It means to take control of a memory, as it flashes in a moment of danger. For historical materialism it is a question of holding fast to a picture of the past, just as if it had unexpectedly thrust itself, in a moment of danger, on the historical subject.”[5]

In short, we find our project, which began in a documentary mode, turning into a sort of economic materialist history based in image constellations that reflect on the present moment of ecological crisis and the apparent end of extractive ideologies. We hope the reflection on the past is also thinking forward into the future. It is a risky proposition. Among the questions we face now are: is such a project obscurantist and culturally irrelevant? how do we retain complexity but also speak to a broad audience? how do we regard the core of the project, which is a set of landscape images in the present moment? how do we incorporate the history of labor, which is at the heart of the matter? if the relationship between past and present is dialectically complicated, what of the future?

Below is a slide show in the voice of a historian 200 years from now speaking about the American River and this archive of images as her own society begins to colonize Mars. In this work, which is really a sketch, we begin to feel for what these core landscape photographs really do. There are situated in an uncertain temporal place. They are mostly of ruins or Smithson’s “ruins in reverse” in which “the buildings don’t fall into ruin after they are built but rather rise into before they are built.”)[6]  They depict landscapes that are mostly out of time, somehow apart from the hurly burly of our current world and yet also somehow bolstering that world, holding it up.

American River Archive from The Canary Project on Vimeo.


Susannah Sayler and Edward Morris (Sayler/Morris) work with photography, video, writing and installation. Of primary concern are contemporary efforts to develop ecological consciousness and the possibilities for art within a social activist practice. In 2006 they co-founded The Canary Project – a collaborative that produces visual media and artworks that deepen public understanding of the Anthropocene. Works from The Canary Project have been exhibited broadly in venues including: MASS MoCA, The Kunsthal Museum in Rotterdam, The Museum of Contemporary Art/Denver, the Museum of Science and Industry (Chicago, IL). Sayler Morris are currently Smithsonian Artist Research Fellows and Artist Fellows at The Nevada Museum of Art’s Center for Art + Environment. In 2008-2009 Sayler and Morris were Loeb Fellows at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. They currently teach in the Transmedia Department at Syracuse University.


[1] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002) 474.

[2] From a lecture at the Slade School of Fine Art, University College London, November Buckingham takes the idea of the “vanishing point” from Susan Buck-Morss’s reading of Walter Benjamin. She has written that Benjamin “understood historical ‘perspective’ as a focus on the past that made the present, as revolutionary ‘now-time,’ its vanishing point.” See Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1991), 339. Quoted in Mark Godfrey, “The Artist as Historian,” October 120 (Spring 2007): 143.

[3] Walid Raad in conversation with Alan Gilbert,

[4] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002) 462.

[5] Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History

[6] Robert Smithson “A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey”, in Flam, J. (ed.) Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings (Berkley: University of California Press, 1996) 72.

Laying Claim | Scott Polach

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Drawing on the history of pluviculture—attempts to induce rain artificially—these works examine water in Southern California. Using the drawn-down Morena reservoir, once one of the largest in San Diego County, and a 1915 professional rainmaker’s flood at the site as an initial point of entry, I’m currently exploring water use as something functional, sublime and absurd. During the Southwest’s current drought, I’ve been saving water from the shower as it warms, transporting it 60 miles to the east, filling water balloons and performing various rainmaking activities in a dry reservoir.

In December 1915 San Diego was in it’s fifth year of drought, and city officials began to worry as their main reservoirs were nearly dry. They saw no harm in hiring the world’s most famous rainmaker, Charles Hatfield, for a fee of $10,000 to bring enough rain to fill nearby Morena Reservoir. Using his “chemical highball,” Charles and his brother went to work the first day of 1915, and on the 10th day the rains began. Over the next few weeks the rain barely stopped, and 30 inches of precipitation caused the reservoir to overflow. Subsequently, a wall of water pummeled the lower lands, destroying dams, bridges farms and settlements. Newspaper accounts number the dead between 20 and 65 people. Hatfield demanded his payment for the water delivered, and the City of San Diego refused to pay stating it was an “act of God.” Hatfield sued the city, and the case was left open on the books until Hatfield’s passing in 1958.

My current work uses this story, and various other historical techniques of attempts to produce rain, as a starting point for exploring the current discussions, policies and practices of water use in the Southwest. I’ve been creating multidisciplinary works that explore various facets and experiences of water. From playful confrontations with water balloons on parched earth, to works dealing with the politics of invasive aquatic species, I am attempting to offer new entry points into the Southwest’s conversation on one of the most severe droughts on record.

Make ’em Hum #081714 (2.5m montage of 7min)


Scott Polach (b. 1980,  Hinsdale IL) is an artist, curator and educator who earned a B.A. from Loyola University Chicago and a M.F.A. form the San Francisco Art Institute. His work investigates how perceptions of ecological systems relate to the policies and practices that inform collective conceptions of nature.

Seeing through Subtraction: Four Figures in the Great Salt Lake Desert | Katherine Jenkins & Parker Sutton

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Figure 1: Exframe at Site #3 in the the Great Salt Lake Desert, Utah.

The aesthetics of America’s Great Basin, and deserts moreover, so often described as banal, empty, static, wastelands, may explain its patterns of development as much as any logic based on pragmatism or the utility of this strange landscape. This is not to argue that aesthetics explain the presence of all land-uses of the Great Basin. Many local land-uses – salt farming, copper mining, potash production – are obvious outgrowths of the unique geologic and atmospheric make-up of the place. But others – nuclear waste burial, chemical production, weapons testing – may be borne of some combination of the unique landform aesthetics of this particular environment and conventional modes of human perception.

The terrain of the Great Basin has a long and volatile geologic history. Benches from the ancient pluvial lake that once saturated our present-day airspace are etched into the basaltic and rhyolitic peaks that articulate the Basin’s perimeter. A cataclysmic breach into the plains of Idaho some fifteen thousand years ago that remade lakebeds into playas remains visible in Red Rock Pass.

The tale of human habitation here is comparatively short; its vestigial traces less apparent – hidden or erased. From the absence of such anthropological landmarks we infer an emptiness. This ideological impression of emptiness is compounded by a visual one: the field-like regularity of vast areas within the Great Basin that dulls our innate perceptive abilities. This optic fatigue evokes a feeling of vastness and isolation that can belie the remoteness of one’s true geography, as with the area surrounding America’s largest Magnesium Chloride plant, a mere 45 miles upwind from central Salt Lake City.

Figure 2: Site #3 before (left) and after (right) construction of the exframe

Repetition makes it difficult to pick out a defining feature or landmark from the larger landscape. We see fields but no figures. The evenness of the terrain – its undifferentiated hues, lack of contrast, and unbroken horizontality – contradicts our tendency to structure the world in plain geometries. Absent the basest elements of our visual structure, foreground and background vibrate in overlapping planes. This is an environment that is a challenge to see, no less to conjure in one’s mind. This makes it difficult, then, to picture what has been lost, or ruined, by the advent of hazardous waste processing facilities, such as those in Aragonite, UT, west of the Cedar Mountain Range.

Further, this is a landscape perceived in pieces, its wholeness only sensed serially, over great distances and time. Our inability to grasp its magnitude is not unlike the cognitive barrier that prevents our comprehension of the infinitude of a hyper-object such as nuclear waste (a proposed import to this region) whose potency and longevity is heretofore unknown.

How we see and what we select to see is a reflection of what we value in a place. Adrift in the constant pulse of the desert we are blind to subtle changes disguised by broader patterns in the land. In this aesthetic sphere, we see little and value less.

Figure 3: Sites 1-4 after construction of the exframes


Four 10’x10’ incisions in the ground plane operate as extra-framing devices, or exframes, to animate not within, but external to the space they occupy in the desert continuum (Figure 3). At each installation in the Great Salt Lake Desert near Wendover, Utah, the frame (a square) is interior; the picture: everything around it. Four sites were selected to reveal the subtle variation in materiality, scale, and mutability of the Great Salt Lake Desert:

Site 1: Dry packed alkaline silt at the foot of the Silver Island Mountains

Site 2: Rhyodacite gravel eroded from the Silver Island Mountains

Site 3: Moist alkaline mud lightly caked in the Great Salt Lake Desert

Site 4: 1-inch thick white evaporite salt deposits atop mud in the Great Salt Lake Desert

The square is the standard unit for measuring and parceling frontier land, and while no manmade inscription in the land is neutral, the square is – courtesy of Jefferson – endemic to the territory of the Great Basin. Hence, each exframe manifests this familiar orthogonal form. Like the Jeffersonian Grid, the exframe meshes uneasily with the land’s natural contours. Its straight lines cut through the grain of the earth and its surficial distribution of rock, salt, and sage. An exframe’s linear shadow on the otherwise boundless plane of the desert reveals scale and contrast; a line against which we may measure our place (Figures 4 and 5).

Figure 4: Site #3

Figure 5: Site #3, detail of the ground pattern along the edge of the exframe

A presence and an absence, a void within the void, the exframe fluctuates between figure and field, space and matter. Each excavation provides not a frame through which to look, but rather an inflection that allows us to look everywhere else with renewed interest and intensity.

If the uniformly random patterning of the ground plane fatigues our eyes and establishes expectations for what will appear in the next mile – or ten – then the opening created by each square provides relief and restores the perceptive field. The spectrum of what is visible widens.

As a lens into the land – not merely over or across – we may begin to perceive the chthonic weight of this place. The volume of material from two inches of alkaline mud unearthed in the formation of the exframe at site #3 fills twenty-five 4-gallon buckets, equaling one ton of earthen mass (Figures 6 and 7). These two inches of material conceal an estimated 9,000 feet of sediment collected at the bottom of the Great Basin.
The exframe’s 10’x10’ break in the even desert surface hints at the great stratum of material below and the geologic epoch in which it accrued. It is a peeling back of the crust to contemplate both landform processes and human signification. The exframe provides a point of reference for both, disassembling the conventional mode of seeing “empty” spaces and presenting new terms for looking.

Figure 6: Site #3, twenty-five 4-gallon buckets of mud extracted from the exframe


Figure 7: Site #3, one ton of mud opposite the exframe

Figure 8: Site #2

Figure 9: Site #2, dust from the square incision animated by the wind


When an environment has the aesthetic qualities described herein, it risks becoming a backdrop to production; a receiver rather than a collaborator. Today, the hazardous industry within the Great Salt Lake Desert perpetuates the association between its aesthetics and its ostensible value. The exframe alters the visual field to shift our way of seeing, and relating to, this land.

(Note: All installations were temporary and sites were restored to their original condition)

Figure 10: Site #4, exframe incised in the the Great Salt Lake Desert


We are an architect and landscape architect operating a joint design-research collective. Our field of inquiry, Terra Interregnum, examines landscapes that are interstitial in both time and space, from the bizarre topographies of bubble-economies to the ground beneath Arctic pipelines. Our work has been published in journals such as Bracket (forthcoming), Uncube, and Lunch, as well as numerous design blogs, including ArchDaily, Architizer, and Bustler. We are recent winners in the San Francisco I-280 Freeway Competition, and we presented our research on the extraordinary coupling of mega-infrastructure and shifting terrain in the Arctic at the American Society of Landscape Architects national convention in November 2014. Website:

The work presented here was completed during our shared residency at the Center for Land Use Interpretation in Wendover, Utah in June 2015.

Snow Water Equivalent Cabinet – Data as Sculpture | Adrien Segal

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Figure 1 (left) Segal, Adrien. Snow Water Equivalent Cabinet, 2011. Ebonized ash and carved plywood. Private Collection. Figure 3 (right) Segal, Adrien. A Comparative Data Visualization of Annual Snow Water Equivalent Graphs for Water Years 1980 – 2010. Digital drawing. 2015.

Observing, reflecting on, and responding to my surroundings, I am fascinated with the ways in which we study the environment. Modern conventions emphasize the method of scientific analysis to explain our experience of nature, leading to a sense of personal alienation and loss of intimacy with our natural environment. Starting with scientific data as a conceptual basis, my artwork seeks to reconcile scientific conventions of reason and fact with an intuitive sensory experience in the form of sculpture. Although my background is in furniture design, making functional pieces is not my focus – rather I use form, structure, and material as the visual language through which I communicate ideas. Snow Water Equivalent Cabinet is a data sculpture – a physical representation of annual snowpack measurements recorded at Ebbetts Pass in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California (see fig. 1).

Each sculptural exploration begins with a highly personal experience in a natural place.

Growing up at the foot of the arid Rocky Mountains in Colorado, and spending winters in the Sierra Nevadas after moving west to California, the allure of snow and its quiet all encompassing beauty has always captured my attention. Snow is the perfect water storage system, a natural phenomenon in which a necessary life resource is saved in the winter and slowly released in the dry summer months, feeding streams and rivers as it heads towards the ocean. Now, much of that water never reaches it’s destination – dams and diversions reroute and artificially store water to be used for industry, agriculture, and the public supply.

My design method begins with extensive research, collection, and analysis of information.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service (a division of the USGS and the National Water and Climate Center) installs, operates, and maintains an extensive automated system in the Western US and Alaska. In 1935, they established the SNOTEL program, which stands for SNOw TELemetry, to conduct snow surveys and develop accurate and reliable water supply forecasts, which they make available to private industry, government entities, and private citizens through an extensive online searchable database.[1] Quantitative data such as air temperature, precipitation, snow depth, soil moisture, salinity, and snow water equivalent, are available on the website and are searchable by the specific station, frequency, units, layout, and time period.

Snow Water Equivalent (SWE) is the amount of water contained within the snowpack. It can be thought of as the depth of water that would theoretically result if you melted the entire snowpack instantaneously.[2] The formula is a function of snow density and depth. Looking through the list of sites, I recognized Ebbetts Pass as a place I had once visited. The historic data available from this station dates back to 1980, a total of 31 years through 2010 (see fig. 3). Commonly used in hydrology, a water year begins October 1st and ends September 30th the following year, and is used to compare precipitation totals. Plotting time (x) to SWE (Y), the plot line gradually rises, peaks somewhere in the middle of the water year, and swiftly declines back to zero as the snowpack melts off and finally flat lines in the summer (see fig. 2).

Figure 2

Figure 2. Snow Water Equivalent for Ebbetts Pass (462) California SNOTEL Site, Water Year 2008. National Resources Conservation Service. Web. September 2015.

I interpret the complexity of natural systems by translating scientific data into forms that represent trends, patterns, processes, and relationships to reveal unseen changes that occur in the natural landscape over time.

Referencing annual SNOTEL graphs for each of the 31 water years (see fig. 2), I begin to sketch lines and shapes that loosely explore how to transform the 2D information into an engaging 3D form that reveals long term trends and relationships from year to year as the plot lines are layered, stacked, spaced, and lofted into one another (see fig. 4). Removing all labels, numbers, and qualitative markers, my design method is an exploration into ways to articulate the information purely through form and material. Using the numerical data as the conceptual basis, I interpret the data to get at the essence of the patterns that reveal themselves through the process of drawing, refining, translating, and fabricating the forms in physical materials

Figure 5. Segal, Adrien. Concept Sketch for Snow Water Equivalent Cabinet. Pen on paper. 2010.

The result of this extensive design process is a sculpted plywood cabinet – three dimensional graph of the amount of water in the snowpack at any given time during the water year, showing specifically the first snowfall, peak amount of water content, and the final snowmelt (see fig. 5). Using the same website to source data for the average annual precipitation, another variable is embedded in the sculpture which determines the height of each drawer. Years with less precipitation result in very shallow drawers while the shorter snow seasons yield narrow drawers – thus the size of each drawer directly correlates to the annual water patterns. In turn, this directly affects the implied functionality of the cabinet as a device for storage. Drawers representing very dry years with little snowfall are only a quarter of an inch deep. Alternatively, natural phenomena that affect precipitation are revealed as well. The deepest and widest drawer near the bottom of the cabinet has a sculpted plywood front that protrudes farther than all the others. This correlates with the 1982-83 El Niño storm in which a warming of the sea surface temperatures in the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean caused strong storms on the California coast, resulting in higher tides, mudslides on the coast, spring flooding from snowmelt, and record snowfall across the state. In one 36-hour period 8.5 feet of snow fell in the Lake Tahoe region[3].

There is great power in data visualization as a tool to express a point of view, create a narrative, and help us reveal and understand the complex world around us in ways that the naked eye can’t see. By interpreting and translating data into physical forms, the pieces that I create are intended to engage both the body and the mind by articulating meaning through form and material. The tangible expression of ideas makes the information accessible in an unexpected communicative format.

Figure 6. Segal, Adrien. Snow Water Equivalent Cabinet (Detail Views). 2011. Private Collection.

As a visual artist, artistic license gives me the ability to appropriate the immense amount of information available as a conceptual and visual resource. My work capitalizes on the potential that lies within scientific inquiry when strict standards for fact and method are interpreted from a creative perspective. Conversely, allowing viewers to investigate the embedded information from their own perspective can evoke feelings of wonder and curiosity, while giving space for the emotional response that results from understanding the implications of the science beyond the analytic. The artifacts we make have the potential to raise awareness, bring about dialogue, change perceptions, and tell a story about the time and place we live – they can become vessels from which knowledge can be derived.


Adrien Segal is a sculptural data artist and designer based in Oakland, CA.  Her work has been exhibited internationally in galleries and museums, and is published in several books and academic journals, including Boom: A Journal of California and Data Flow 2. Adrien has been an Artist in Residence at Facebook, the Bunnell Art Center in Homer, Alaska and at Autodesk’s Pier 9 Workshop in San Francisco. She is the 2015 Wornick Distinguished Visiting Professor at California College of the Arts, where she received a BFA in Furniture Design. In addition to teaching, she pursues her creative practice out of her studio on a former Naval Base in Alameda, CA. Visit for more information on Adrien’s work and practice.


[1] SNOTEL and Snow Survey & Water Supply Forecasting Program. Brochure. National Water & Climage Center. United States Department of Agriculture. Rev. 1/20/2014. Web. September 2015.

[2] What is Snow Water Equivalent? National Resources Conservation Service, Oregon. United States Department of Agriculture. Web. September 2015.

[3] California’s Top 15 Weather Events of the 1900’s. Western Regional Climate Center. Desert Research Institute. Web. September 2015.

visible from space | Paul Catanese

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visible from space is a thought experiment. It is an open series that exists in multiple materials: video, prints, installation, projection, handmade paper, artist’s books, found objects, notes, interviews, essays and site-specific events

The desert is a site of remote testing where paraconsistent logics are first considered feasible. Mistakenly construed as the opposite of the ocean, the desert teems with depth—it is also its own mirror.

I am conducting a thought experiment about the phrase visible from space, which erupted from a fanciful supposition to create drawings on the Earth so large they would be visible from the moon. For such a feat, the stroke width of the line would need to be close to 60 miles wide in order for barely a hairline to be visible from that distance. It is charming to think that the Great Wall of China is visible from space—but this is merely a popular mythology. It is difficult to resolve an image of the Great Wall even from the International Space Station with the naked eye (which orbits about 250 miles above the Earth), let alone from outer space or nearby celestial bodies. Of course, with military and even civilian imaging technologies, much greater resolution can be achieved as evidenced by what are now commonplace tools such as Google Earth.

Simultaneously, I have been thinking about L’Arbre du Ténéré, a lone tree that lived in the Saharan desert in Niger, the last of a stand of ancient acacias desperately isolated in an encroaching hostile landscape. The ancient tree was well-known as a caravan-route marker and can be found as a single tree indicated on maps in the middle of the vast desert. Oddly, this lone and ancient tree, which shirked the reality of the desert, met with its end after a truck driver ran into it in 1973. That lone tree of the desert, an odd single blip on the map—much like our geosynchronous satellites—occupies less than a pixel’s resolution worth of expanse when viewed from a distance.

While it is significant that we are able to achieve these feats, modern satellite imaging and a proposal to create a drawing on the Earth so large it that could be seen from the moon are similar in the fact that both actions require a wealth of engineering and a lack of humility. Viewed in this light, the requirements for surrogate vision depend on how we define visible, and where we define space. As I contemplate these requirements, I am reminded of L’Arbre du Ténéré, whose monument—a large metal sculpture of a tree—is not even the corpse of a tree.

Chemical Desert, Olfactory Desert, Visionary Desert, Redacted Desert—distance and space are functions of speed and time.

Floating, the expanse of scrubland synchronizes into punctuated dun. Glowing salmon-flesh talc hovers, circumscribing both value and volume. Embellished with blankness, desert devils swirl their columns 70 miles into the sky while the disorganized, vulnerable, convenient desert is perceived from far away.

This project is rooted in deserts, where contradictions regarding the role of land proliferate; where divergent visions of sanctity and utility overlap and confound. I am captivated by how popular myths of a homogenous “desert” as blank canvas collide with competing narratives of test site, backdrop, cloak, archive and cathedral; how these visions intermingle and are inscribed on the land. These thought experiments are a point of departure for speculative practices meant to evoke the paradox of “desert” while celebrating its terrifying majesty.

Since its inception in 2010, visible from space has received support from a number of residency programs: the Central School Project in Bisbee, Arizona; the Goldwell Open Air Museum near Death Valley; and upcoming at the Playa Artist Residency at Summer Lake, Oregon. This program is partially supported by a grant from the Illinois Arts Council Agency. Artworks from this project were first exhibited by the Leonardo Electronic Almanac to inaugurate their online exhibition platform. Since then, component artworks have been exhibited and screened at a wide range of festivals and venues including at the Claudia Cassidy Theatre at the Chicago Cultural Center; as part of the exURBAN Screens festival through the Frankston Art Centre in Melbourne; Kasa Galeri in Istanbul; Video Guerilla Festival in Sao Paulo, Brasilia and Rio de Janiero; Luminaria festival in San Antonio; Re-Imagining Paper and Fiber International Invitational in Hilo Hawaii; and the 2014 Festival Internacional de Linguagem Eletrônica (FILE). I will additionally be presenting this work at the 20th International Symposium on Electronic Art to be held in Dubai in November 2014, and I will be continuing development on the project during my Spring 2015 sabbatical.


Rosemont Ours: A Field Guide | Kimi Eisele and Ben Johnson

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Rosemont Ours: A Field Guide (2013) celebrates the plants and animals of the Santa Rita Mountains of Southern Arizona and its nearby riparian areas, featuring movement meditations of over 20 species—from Coleman’s coralroot orchid to jaguar—performed by modern dancers. The project was born in response to the construction of Rosemont Mine, an open-pit copper mine proposed by a Canadian mining company. If built, the mine would impact over 4,000 acres of land in Southern Arizona, including critical habitat for nearly a dozen species federally recognized as threatened or endangered as well as precious riparian areas and groundwater resources. By “replacing” plants and animals with human beings in reverential and playful ways, the film invites us to consider our role as both stewards and consumers of nature. The video is a project of NEW ARTiculations Dance Theatre directed by Kimi Eisele and filmed/edited by Ben Johnson. An original musical score was composed by Vicki Brown and David Sudak.

As desert dwellers of the Southwest (Tucson), we are interested in the ways video and dance/movement can enter a conversation about conservation and resource use. Our project considers the fragile environs of Southern Arizona, investigating visually and kinesthetically the plant and animal species that depend on particular habitats to survive and thrive. While we recognize our dependency on copper and copper products to propel our ideas and ourselves through landscapes, we also question certain aspects of resource extraction—how it happens, where it happens, and by whom. We wanted to create a quiet reflection of this dilemma by bringing attention to the plant and animal species of the region and to use the human body as a way to tease out those questions. The result is Rosemont Ours: A Field Guide, which aims to venerate some of the species in residence here as well as to invite consideration of our very human relationships to those species, the land and its resources.


Becoming Wordless for a Moment, or Repurposing Backyard Swimming Pools in Aridtopia as Meditation Shrines, Permaculture Gardens and Survivalist Shelters | Tyler Stallings

Posted on by admin1963 Posted in Fall 2014, Practices | Comments Off on Becoming Wordless for a Moment, or Repurposing Backyard Swimming Pools in Aridtopia as Meditation Shrines, Permaculture Gardens and Survivalist Shelters | Tyler Stallings
Empty swimming pool in author’s backyard. Courtesy of Tyler Stallings.

Empty swimming pool in author’s backyard. Courtesy of Tyler Stallings.

Decades in the near future, Southern California and much of the Southwestin the U.S. will be rechristened as Aridtopia, a secessionist, and arid-sustainable community. This speculative article is one in an ongoing series that looks at the present as if it were the past viewed from a future Aridtopia.

The pool has been drained. It is a curved, underground space now. It suggests the first organic architecture used by humans: a cave. My partner and I stand at the edge of the shallow end, looking down into the 12-foot depth of the far end. Edges are not perceptible. It is a curved space that drains away hard-edged, angled daily worries as we descend the tiled stairs and walk down the gently sloping plaster floor towards the deep end’s curvature. Our orange trees, aloe plants and San Pedro cacti disappear as we submerge ourselves into the swimming pool. The white plaster reflects the relentless sunlight from a cloudless sky.


This ritual is a fantasy. We do own a sunken backyard pool in Riverside, California, which skirts the Mojave Desert, but it is full of water still. As many as 43,000 pools exist in Los Angeles County according to an independent report created by some college students called the “Big Atlas of L.A. Pools,” a digital analysis of every swimming pool in the Los Angeles Basin between the Hollywood Hills and San Pedro. No such report exists for Riverside County, at least from my research. I will assume, then, the same figure due to the size of the county and because so many new houses were built in the 1990s included backyard pools.

About 7,000 gallons of water evaporate from a typical pool over the course of a year. Taking that number times 43,000 pools equals 301,000,000 gallons that has to be replenished each year. On average, a person in California uses from 98 gallons per day in San Francisco to 736 gallons per person per day in Palm Springs, or 35,770 to 268,640 per capita annually. Unable to swallow this figure, my partner and I have decided that our backyard pool must be repurposed. There are so few examples, however, other than filling it in with dirt.


We continue with our fantasy of how to best repurpose our backyard pool.

We lower ourselves gently into the ground. It is not a burial act. In the ground, our past lives die and our true lives open. We connect with the ground and the cosmic. We feel as though we are exploring gravity, as if the curvature of the pool is a depression caused by a heavy invisible object. It is the opposite of what is visible in the universe: we can see the planets, but not the curvature of space produced by their mass.

In the 1970s, a drought in California prompted the draining of pools, which inspired vagabond skateboarders to trespass into backyards. There they skirted the edges of empty pools with boards. They were like asteroids or moons circling a planet, using centrifugal force to create orbits instead of falling like spent satellites.

Our pool is a backyard temple, shrine and church. But instead of a structure above ground, one that might ascend to a sun god, it is recessed in the earth. It is a different cosmology. It is less about contacting supernatural beings and powers. Rather, it is more about contacting one’s consciousness that is at once in oneself and also a part of the cosmos. We are both sun gods and human beings.

We do not see the underground, empty, curved space of the pool as a symbolic womb, whether full of water or absent of it, whether wet or dry. Yes, we are being reborn spiritually in the backyard, but not through organic means. It is through a machine without moving parts, that is, the human-built swimming pool. It is a machine, not a womb.

Artist Chad Person stands on his Recess Bunker surrounded by his sculptures, aka survivalist weapons. Image courtesy of the artist.

Artist Chad Person stands on his Recess Bunker surrounded by his sculptures, aka survivalist weapons. Image courtesy of the artist.

In suburban New Mexico, artist Chad Person bought a house with a swimming pool and repurposed it. However, instead of the permaculture route, he refashioned it as a survivalist bunker for his family. While constructed according to speculative, apocalypse specifications, he also treated it as an art project. For a 2010 exhibition, he lived in what he called his “Recess Bunker” for a month and streamed his activities live. The exhibition in the gallery contained constructions that he called both sculptures and survivalist projects, such as the Automated Sentry Defense System.

According to Person’s website, you can build your own robotic sentry gun by “using some commonly available electronics, open-source software, and spare parts from your garage.” It uses a live camera feed in conjunction with a number of servos to acquire, aim, and fire on potentially hostile targets. Its makeshift appearance suggests a wooden mailbox or old shoeshine box gone awry, sitting atop a tripod made of 2x4s, and what could be an awkward weather vane at the apex, which is actually the gun made from metal piping.

Artist Chad Person’s survivalist sculpture/weapon, the Automated Sentry Defense System. Image courtesy of the artist.

Artist Chad Person’s survivalist sculpture/weapon, the Automated Sentry Defense System. Image courtesy of the artist.

Presently, our backyard is full of fruits and vegetables. The trees are orange, lemon, avocado, pomegranate, apple, plum and peach. The raised-garden contains varieties of kales and lettuces, broccoli, cabbage, onions, strawberries, blueberries and various herbs. However, they require water and tending.

An empty pool is a perfect place to create a self-sustaining ecosystem. Dennis McClung came to this revelation in 2009 when he and his partner and their two young children bought a repossessed house in Mesa, Arizona, just outside Phoenix. It had one of the 300,000 pools in the area, according to McClung’s statistical research. There they set up their own version of Biosphere 2, which is located not too far from their town.

Biosphere 2 is a somewhat self-contained system that features five different biomes, including a rainforest, an ocean with a coral reef, mangrove wetlands, savannah grassland and a fog desert. It’s been an experiment in the relationship between agriculture, human living, and nature in general, with the aim of seeing how we can improve these planetary relationships on a larger scale or perhaps apply to future outer-space colonization. Survival will be tenuous beyond Earth as the rest of the solar system is an extreme environment not meant for humans.

Schematic drawing for the Garden Pool. Image courtesy of Garden Pool.

Schematic drawing for the Garden Pool. Image courtesy of Garden Pool.

The McClung family was self-sustaining within a year and has gone on to create an educational nonprofit called Garden Pool.

Their main structure consists of PVC tubing bent over a 2×4 wood structure to create a curved roof. Plastic greenhouse sheeting covers the tubing. McClung says it took about a day to build and about $1,500 in supplies. When you walk into the backyard, it appears like any homemade greenhouse. However, when you enter it, the depth below ground is the surprise.

According to the website, the Garden Pool utilizes a permaculture sensibility that mimics relationships found in natural ecologies. By combing solar power panels to harness and store the sun’s energy, the McClungs are able to pump water from their pond at the deep end up to the garden areas. In addition to water conservation and waste-water recycling, poultry farming is interwoven in the Garden Pool. The chickens are situated at the pool’s deep end near a pond full of tilapia fish—the waste from the chickens falls through a wire mesh, which feeds the algae, which the fish eat. The family of four eats the tilapia, a resulted sustenance in this practice of aquaculture. Through hydroponic gardening, fruits, veggies and herbs are grown without soil (using expanding clay balls instead), irrigated with water pumped from the tilapia fishpond via solar energy. This allows for an aquaponic solution: organic horticulture using natural methods to control garden pests, such as snails; biofiltration (natural water filtration by way of biochemistry and duckweed); and a thermal mass of thousands of gallons of water that is warmed by the sun.

The Garden Pool in working condition. Image courtesy of Garden Pool.

The Garden Pool in working condition. Image courtesy of Garden Pool.

At the deep end of the Garden Pool, my partner and I rest. We sit side by side on a platform with round yoga cushions, cross our legs, hold each other’s hands crossed between us, and stare at the plaster’s whiteness.

It is a machine to induce meditation. There are no moving parts. We hear birds sing above us. We hear the seedpods of the jacaranda jingle in the wind. They are not machine parts. They are separate people. My partner and I are of the people who build and use machines. But sometimes the original intention is reimagined based on changing circumstances, as with this swimming pool.

It is 85 degrees above the rim of the swimming pool. Down here, it is not the 55 degrees common in many cave environments. Underground, it is always the same season. To achieve that kind of underground weather, the cave has to be sealed off from the surface for the most part and not too near a molten mass. For the pool, airflow brings down aboveground temperatures, which are then mitigated by the underground temperature, balancing out at between 50 and 60 degrees.

It is as though we are descending down deep into the limestone caves in France and Spain with their Upper Paleolithic painted and engraved images. Horses, bulls, stags, ibexes and oxen—thought to be 15,000 to 17,000 years old—could just as easily be galloping, charging and leaping across the curvature of the pool’s deep end. It is our own underworld. But our cave is one more in our minds.

We lose a sense of our boundaries, even while holding hands. We sit in this silent machine and silently become cosmic. Sometimes we keep our eyes open, though blinking normally, and other times we close them. At all times we follow our breaths. We are the organic part that contributes to the working of this machine.

Images of aurochs, horses and deer in Lascaux Caves, France. Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Images of aurochs, horses and deer in Lascaux Caves, France. Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

In the future, in Aridtopia, we will call this “repurposing” in combination with the mediation Turrelling, named after the artist James Turrell, who is still alive in the present day, long before the rise of Aridtopia.

Turrell has made light his medium. For some of his interior work, he creates what he calls a Ganzfeld. As he writes on his website, Ganzfeld is “a German word to describe the phenomenon of the total loss of depth perception as in the experience of a whiteout.” In his installations, Turrell artificially creates a similar experience through the controlled use of light, curved corners and an inclined floor.

For others, he created a series of “Skyspaces.” They are purpose-built rooms with an opening to the sky in the ceiling. Benches usually line the perimeter of the walls where viewers can watch the slow, shifting colors of the sky. It, too, is a machine with no moving parts except for clouds and the rotation of the Earth. The basis of the device is framing the sky, which decontextualizes it from its surroundings, thus making it strange to us again. But the framing also limits our viewpoints on purpose in order to make the vast sky and cosmos a more intimate experience.

Similarly, we can also lie at the bottom of the pool on another platform, while the edges of the pool create a frame of the sky.

Detail of empty swimming pool in author’s backyard. Courtesy of Tyler Stallings.

Detail of empty swimming pool in author’s backyard. Courtesy of Tyler Stallings.

There is nothing else in this curved space that lives. The living world is above us. Down here in our own repurposed pool, it is simple, giving the feeling that we could create our world anew. It is this cleansing that my partner and I take with us as we ascend back up to the edge of the swimming pool and step back into view of our orange trees, aloe plants and San Pedro cacti. We were wordless down in the pool, in the depths of the Earth, but now we are full of words for articulating a repurposing of the world’s built environment. But they may be such new words that they could sound like babble to some. Nonetheless, the pool has been drained and has become a machine for spiritual replenishment that connects the underground, the surface and the sky together. It is an axis mundi, but with the aim of sustaining Earth rather than enhancing relationships to gods.

See also: William Fox’s review of Tyler Stallings’ Aridtopia

Mytho-poetic domestic settings of the Mid North of South Australia | Sue Michael

Posted on by admin1963 Posted in Fall 2014, Practices | Comments Off on Mytho-poetic domestic settings of the Mid North of South Australia | Sue Michael

South Australia is the driest state in the driest continent. The overlooked Mid North region of South Australia has homes full of small adjustments to the climate. We have overlooked the importance of the geographic ensemble in shaping life-worlds, domestic culture and history. Surveying, analyzing and appropriating real estate images has provided a way to use private images in an imaginative, essential capacity, illuminating the place making changes to a broader audience. An unstudied aesthetic of the region has been discovered, which provides reflective opportunity to both the Mid North region and the wider world. Painting, using my photo collages as a guide, allows me to add or subtract elements, and has the capacity to contribute to an interdisciplinary role with humanistic geography, with its poetic truth. With the possibility of climate change, practices from the Mid North may have applications beyond the area.


I have been invasively looking through real estate pages on the Internet, arranging my own home visits in the district, reading historical accounts and talking with family, to learn more about the homes in the Mid North. They are surprising—cool, aqua-painted walls throughout, twin bed lamps that tell of the promise of reading and gentle conversation, added on TV rooms open to the southerly breezes, and framed pictures placed at a height of eight feet around the rooms.
I didn’t understand what was going on, though it is all so familiar to me—as familiar as jellied peas with cold cuts, and budgies going for a lounge flight, and flower arrangements for the kitchen table using the only six flowers you could find in the summer garden.

I am aware of the political and sociological inferences of home, but my premise is that landscape is felt more intensely to enter the home here and that locals, over time, have come to accept its presence, adapting and using creative problem solving, enhancing their spaces to have a better life, without focusing on fear.
Nicolas Rothwell suggests we can be shaped by Aboriginality. White settlement, of course, caused the near destruction of the Ngadjuri people, but I believe my pioneering ancestors—who had a close relationship with groups on their property—learnt from their alternative intelligence too. Faced with isolation, poverty, a difficult climate, with death all around, the Mid North Imagination was shaped. And it is still evident today. I see it in my family and I see it in the local homes: special plants are given pots under the verandah, or indoor berths; seating arrangements allow enjoyment of the natural environment in numerous orientations in one garden; patterns of shade, not furnace sunshine, are continued in house interiors; social togetherness—lounge rooms with eight recliners with knee rugs suggests care of each other and staying together in a cluster. Toolsheds with three rooms, extension cords coiled neatly, ready for do-it-yourself repairs. And cupboards and vases are filled with the gifts from the garden.

These are all positive signs of nourishing living—in a region where you could easily die of thirst, if the brown snakes or the silence doesn’t get to you first. It is simplified, pared back and practical living.

As climate change progresses, we may do well to look more closely at how a comfortable life is fashioned here. Alan Aitkinson suggests the European contribution to Australia is the capacity to be perverse, with different, unacceptable ways. We may be able to hoist up new ideas.

And as a footnote, I haven’t begun to tell you about the unseen forces one may feel there. The countryside is full of startling revelation that for me can provoke thought, more so than contemporary art installations.

The recent 28-day-long Bangor fire front burnt my cousin Howard’s land near Murraytown. During the night, he feared 300 head of sheep would be lost. By morning only 25 had lost their lives. They had huddled together into a tight circle—their heads down with a barrier of fire-resistant wool—a shield. They knew what to do. And they now have provided a metaphor for our lives.

Hey—switch the television off! Home is more than a fashion statement, status symbol or site for ideological difficulties. We are not Milan, nor a ski resort in Klosters, nor anything else. The grounded, and even primordial knowledge is available to us. (Remember sheep know instinctively what to do with Australia—why can’t we?!)

May I suggest, eyes to the front!

Website portfolio:

Flamin’ Stars | Sarah Jones with Julika and Ivan Martinez

Posted on by admin1963 Posted in Fall 2014, Practices | Comments Off on Flamin’ Stars | Sarah Jones with Julika and Ivan Martinez

Flamin’ Stars is a collaborative sound work by artist and writer Sarah Jones, sound producer Julika, and designer Ivan Martinez. The hour-long narrative piece, reminiscent of a radio drama, is based on a series of short, poetic texts developed during a residency period in Texas in 2013. The work moves the listener along the border road between Marfa and El Paso, engaging in a kind of visual and emotional cartography. The fragmentary, narrated texts are woven together by abstract sound, music and literary quotes and structured around the score of the 1960s Don Siegel-directed film Flaming Star, from where this work takes its title. The film, starring Elvis Presley as the mixed-blood Pacer Burton and set in Texas, deals with overt and implicit forms of racism and the complexities of “belonging.” Flamin’ Stars readdresses these notions in a contemporary context through a personal engagement with landscape and movement by three artists from different backgrounds. The work travels through, along, and at times ruptures contemporary dialogue around border landscapes, race, movement and environment. It hopes to go beyond the written and the spoken, into and then somehow beyond the specific context of the West Texas desert landscape. It moves beyond the obvious physicality of sound/silence, listening and repetition, to finally and meaningfully relate to the body of the listener.

There is an earth-sized, spinning globe between where we will start and where we will finish. An unsteady, future-horizon that marks an endpoint. Between there and now, is the distance in a picture postcard. An impossibly flat place, stamped with glossy sky.

Each ocean spreads and thins as the globe turns away from us. We will lose a day at the beginning, and then we will get it back at the end. An extra last day. Over the distance, the span of which is a constant guess, is an invented end.

An author wrote that we live waiting to die. That we can see our own end, always, in our periphery. That we have built our cities to meticulously count down our own deaths, to track every second that we live, waiting to die. Like when Elvis sings about the flaming star that sits over his shoulder. He can’t look around. He must ride forward because if he catches sight of the star that is following him he will know that he is going to die.


I thought of two things the first time I saw that road. That road that rips across the center of something vast that bears the wrong name.

The first is a story written by Peter Carey,[1] about a soldier who guards a road. He guards the road alone in the desert; he has his instructions, whose side of the road is whose. But as time passes, he forgets which way is east and which way is west. The expanse of the desert consumes him. The white light eats his orientation, even though everyday he rises to guard what he still sees, the perfect, empty, blue sky, the dead, flat, orange horizon. The desert dirt is packed down tight, the solid edge of that giant blue bowl compressing all around him. The blue on the orange and then the white pricked stars in the black sky are the only things that are distinct.

He looks up and down the road, there are two sides but in time he forgets what side he is on. A plane lands in the story and he must tell the pilot where he cannot fly but he can’t remember. The pilot continues without the soldier’s permission. The soldier shoots the plane from the sky. The plane burns against the perfect slice where blue meets orange. A small pop of flames in the distance, burning into the night and then nothing. Forgotten. Burning somewhere inside the soldier but he forgets where.

The second is a joke told by my mother, one of the only two she could remember. It’s about a pilot landing a plane in the desert. He comes down fast and wrenches the breaks of the plane on, he looks side to side, down and up the runway, and says: “Wow, the runways here are short but they sure are wide.” It’s one of those jokes that you have to tell with your body. My mother clenching her fists as she pulls back on the brakes of her imaginary plane. The way she throws her body forward with the jolt of the screeching halt. My mother screeching. And then her hair falling from side to side, as she leans forward in the cockpit to gaze at the ribbon of her imaginary runway, running east and running west. “They sure are wide,” she says, her voice a little softer when she is facing away from me delivering the punch line.

This road is a cut. A black slice in the orange desert dirt. A black slice deaf to the screaming of the trucks that steal its sunshine and its silence. The trucks’ lumbering shadows looking side to side, leaning forward, looking west in the morning and east in the afternoon. The trucks steal the light from the road. The trucks track the sun and the moon across the sky. The trucks run the artery of the blood that is pushed from east to west as things are gathered and shipped. The trucks take and the trucks feed, the trucks are fed on the takings. Running down. Chasing hours.

The scream of the stolen desert is silenced by the rumble of the trucks’ hearts that beat from one side to another and back again. The trucks roar over tracks laid by murdered feet. The trucks are the boats that bring the thieves across the orange sea. The trucks cut proudly, bow forward, through the waves of sounds that they silence.

This road is a border, lined with chickens that cannot cross. No punch line. No one is allowed to forget whose side of the road is whose. This road cannot be crossed. Planes have fallen trying. And each one has been shot down, and burst on the horizon and burned long into the desert night. White pricking the black sky and a burning that cannot be forgotten, not even by the soldier, who guards the east or the west. Every small death on the horizon burns inside of him, even if he cannot remember where.


It is on the gentlest days when there is no wind, only sunlight that the branches fall. The crack is jaw breaking. The limbs pull away from the trunks of the lumbering beasts like muscle pulling from bone. They have grown heavy and exhausted with yesterday’s fat raindrops. And then swollen and bruised in the warm sunlight of the day after they begin their tearing. The creak is of all the old doors and the cracking is of all of the stones upon one another. There is an endless silence in the falling of the branches, as if the forest inhales. The thud of the branch hitting the soil has a sound that you hear in your heels and in your chest, your ears still impotent from the crack.


Their burden pressing upon him from outside, as if somehow it had been transferred to these purple mountains all around him, so mysterious, with their secret mines of silver, so withdrawn, yet so close, so still, and from these mountains emanated a strange melancholy force that tried to hold him here so bodily, which was its weight, the weight of many things, but mostly that of sorrow.[2]


We watched the red lumps from the mosquito bites on our legs swell, we counted them on one another’s backs; a growing tally of what didn’t bite someone else. We saw each other’s faces dissolve orange in the sunset. We pointed and showed; we looked. We walked the Lost Mine Trail for the endless vista at the peak.

According to legend, a rich ore body was discovered at the highest point of Lost Mine Peak. Life-term prisoners were forced to work the mine, these men were blindfolded on several occasions in their march from the Presidio in San Vicente, Mexico, to prevent them from learning its location.[3]

We were forced in the desert heat to ache against the rocks with splitting fingers, listening keenly to each other’s enslaved breath, the smell of the captors and the smell of the theft of sweat. The direction of the wind, the birds, the crickets, the other insects, the boiling of blood, and the trembling of captured nerves.


Do you still see the sorrow now as we drive? Stealing the desert again with our eyes? Obsessed with the 80 miles of screaming rock that we can capture. We use vision as a woven and permeable net to collect and to strain. We shade our eyes from the sun. We are bordered on all sides by sight.

This was the point. To see what’s here, finally to look and to know you’re looking, to feel time passing, to be alive to what is happening in the smallest registers of motion.[4]


Captain MacWhirr, of the steamer Nan-Shan who has a physiognomy that in the order of material appearances, was the exact counterpart of his mind: it presented no marked characteristics of firmness or stupidity; it had no pronounced characteristics whatever…[5]

The Nan-Shan was ploughing a vanishing furrow upon the circle of the sea that had the surface and the shimmer of an undulating piece of grey silk. The sun pale and without rays, poured down leaden heat in a strangely indecisive light.[6]


The black crow orchestra raising their wings, arching their arms and pushing them over themselves like breaking waves. The sound sliding lower down. Sinking into the backs of the audience’s throats and catching there like disappointment. Two-hundred silent throats tightening, under the dove, inside of the whale. The sound running below them, underground, the growling-swallet filling with thunder.

Outside the summer sky is darkening and the orchestra are dropping their elbows. The pitch of the storm starts racing. Their arms are by their sides and their bows are vertical, stabbing the sky a thousand times a second, slashing furiously, and wincing in seizures. Their hearts are sprinting up the ladders in their chests and their chins tilt ever so slightly toward the painted sky. The highest notes freeze the air inside of their lungs in the pre-death panic of drowning.

And the first drop of rain at the end of the drought is the smallest drop in timbre. It razors the napes of necks open. The relief is counted in the foreclosing of 400 eyelids, broke and destitute, folding with the wings of the violinists. The applause breaks the heat and the drought and it rains down so loudly that the orchestra leave.


…the great rain that came sweeping off the mountains, too strong to think into… the air was sharp and charged and when the rain stopped, in minutes, we went back [to] what we were talking about when the sky broke open.[7]


There is music that makes my eyes burn and I’m embarrassed to cry. My chest tightens in the best way; I’m full of myself. So full that my throat starts to hurt, like I might choke on something like joy but more like fullness, like a round cold water balloon in the summer. Or an ice cube swallowed on the trampoline. Like a belly full of watermelon and a throat full of dry, brown grass that smells of heat and dirt. Like a fist full of saltwater on freckles. Full like a summer.


We sleep top and tail in your single bed. Lying together underneath that blanket with all of the stars and the moons and the suns on it. We wake up with the dawn that splits the cheap, cane roll-blinds that you love because they remind you of the beach. They are beaten along the edges, thin sticks snapped off at uneven intervals down the fringe of the blind, like badly set type or a broken zipper. One of the blinds is too long for the window so that the last half-meter is permanently rolled up. It hangs on a strange diagonal, one end slumped on the Berber carpet; the other suspended awkwardly two inches above the sill. Dawn fills a thin triangle and spreads out into the room like a cake slice on the carpet.

When there are too many of us with our brothers and sisters we share seatbelts in the back of the car. Our skinny legs itch hot against the woven fabric seats. Our shoulders push together, caving our chests in, putting our forearms in our laps and our elbows in front of our hips. The surface down opposite sides of our bodies touches; we are all pale skin, all stuck together. Like the sea snails suckered against the glass of my fish tank. When we get to the beach we will peel apart from one another and the creases in your shorts will have printed a pattern in my thigh. As I arch my foot to push myself out of the car, you will step on the back of one of my thongs trapping me to the floor. I will jerk back awkwardly all limbs and wide eyes, and you will lurch forward into me. Your front will slam against my back, your chin will knock against my shoulder, our legs will tangle like spaghetti, and we will topple onto the sparkling black roadside. Laughing with our mouths open to the blue sky, eyes squeezed shut to the glare of the sun. We are brothers and sisters and childhood best friends and we go everywhere like this, tangled in summer.


There is, sometimes in thunder, another person who thinks for you, takes in one’s mental porch furniture, shuts and bolts the mind’s window against what seems less appalling as a threat than as some distortion of celestial privacy, a sheltering insanity in heaven, a form of disgrace forbidden mortals to observe too closely: but there is always a door left open in the mind […] for the entrance and the reception of the unprecedented, the fearful acceptance of the thunderbolt that never falls on oneself, for lightning always hits the next street.[8]


There are no permanent streams in Presidio County. Even the heat, languid in her attempt to rise, wishes for water at midday. She lays her cheek on the loamy soil of the Marfa plateau as if listening for its heartbeat. But the aquifers are buried to the north and the east. The ground water is pulled up elsewhere, in bigger towns that are further from the border. She pushes herself flat against the earth, between the spiking tufts of desert grass and begs for water from the ground. She wants with all of her weight to make the clay sweat small tears of moisture for her to carry upwards into the open sky. The hard clay yields. She cracks the earth open and dries its wounds, she takes the water from the creosote bushes, and the carcasses of the butterflies that have travelled further than we have to kneel in her heat. The summer heat in the northern part of the Chihuahuan Desert takes more than double the moisture than the cloudless sky can give.

Even the big river is stolen. North of where we drive the Rio Grande slows to a thin sheet of muddied glass. It is bled slowly for the old crops on both sides of its banks. It sighs quietly down, pulling tightly into a single fine line for a border on a map. From where we are sitting, the land appears flat in every direction and we fantasize that we can see forever. The horizon is just the end of where we are, and where we are doesn’t end and eventually falls out of time with where we have come from. The rhythm is shifting like a badly told joke—so an Englishman, an American, a Mexican and an Australian are walking through the desert… We are sitting with our backs pushed against the seats in the truck. The banks of the Rio Grande are lined with concrete between El Paso and Juarez to stop the fine line of the border from moving again like it has before. Two-hundred years ago the river tried to travel south, over ten years it broke its banks, flooding its way toward the equator, it sliced 600 acres from Mexico. The line on one map moved and two nation’s agreements eroded. The deepest channel of the river is lined with concrete now and it is easy to see who is on one side and who is on the other. The river can’t cut south; it is locked between two smooth walls of concrete. The heat kisses the black snake highway and the mirage dances in front of us. The searing heat bloats the steel railway tracks that slice the dry throat of downtown and keeps us in the swelling becoming of this present. The sun that was above us has filled its belly with shadow to weight its fall behind the horizon.


The sun is setting and the temperature is changing. The heat is only remembered like the heat of a lover who has left.

It is as if you are burning in your sleep, running a fever. Even when the air is laced with the iciness of July, your shoulders remain uncovered, lumbering slowly up and down with the half-time breathing of midnight. Your feet, pale soled, have crept tentatively from under the blankets. You appear severed, dismembered, only rumpled blackness between shoulders and toes. Your skin is pulled tight over your cheekbones, your neck, and the very top of your long spine. It is waxy and fuzzy warm gold like repolished antique timber. Your eyelashes meet quietly and embrace one another like unfaithful lovers conscious of the hours left until the breaking dawn. Your mouth is still, unsmiling; it is curved in a way unique to sleep. I have never seen that impenetrable curve before. It is the shape that protects the secrets of stillness, some of which will remain secret even to you after you are awake. I can feel your warm breath skating along the pillow and onto my shoulder. I can smell the salty dampness of hot sleep all over you; you are soft and heavy. All of the encroaching daylight is suffocating somewhere beneath you. Like moss you have smothered the rock of the sun. Nothing moves when you are not moving; your silence spills out over everything. Spills out as heat.

As we drive we forget the desert heat as I have forgotten his. We cannot remember together, and in the slow losing of our summers we remember things forgotten. We remember the theft. We re-hear the rumble that we thought for a second was silence.


And now it is night in the desert, and summer is gone; it’s cold. We tell one another ghost stories to break the silent pulse of the white dashes on this road. White lines to separate one side from the other. We deliver our stories like letters to one another. You find yours on small scraps of paper littered somewhere in a past I’ve never visited:

One man checks the engine of his truck before leaving.
While driving, he feels sick and tired so he takes a pill to heal his sickness.
Late at night the only thing that is seen in the road is a lonely mountain, which looks blacker than the night sky.
He feels observed and feels the need to turn his head to the left.
He sees something like a fireball flying close to him.
He closes the window.
The fireball flies from one side to another, sometimes blocking his vision.
He speeds up, but the ball now seems to be floating in his right side.
Slowly the fireball goes away until it gets lost in the trees while the truck is crossing the railroad tracks.
Immediately after the ball has disappeared a sound of crying pigs comes from everywhere.

The truck driver speeds up as much as possible and sometimes he brakes with the engine to silence the other sound.[9]


Last night in Marfa, I went to the local barber’s 21st birthday party. I admit that it’s been a while since I was invited to a 21st and I was a little nervous that I’d be mistaken for that unplaceable family member who is just that little bit too old, and that little bit too young. The room was tiny, maybe four by nine meters; a freestanding structure in a dusty lot, like a temporary canteen or a portable toilet block. The room is the local barbershop; two barber chairs, four towels, five pairs of scissors, no partridge, no pear tree. But a killer sound system and two blue light globes which had been specially fitted for the big event. The dance floor was home to anywhere between 5 and 15 people, and it was perpetually full as the dancing expanded and contracted to cover the floor. Bodies, writhing in sweat, swelled and saturated the thick blue air. The bass was too heavy; it rattled the plastic-cupped remnants of beer and tequila. Heat and satisfaction mixed with the sweet, rotten smell of warm bourbon. We danced in the dense universe of that box for hours. We thoughtlessly and heavily grabbed space and attention. Taking everything that we could get. Sweat glued my jeans to my legs; my arms gleamed wet after a light brush with the birthday barber. The song ended and we paused momentarily to suck in the moist atmosphere. As the base dropped heavily into the brief silence, I recognized the beat as an M.I.A remix of “Down River” by The Wilcannia Mob. Five indigenous boys from the other side of the Earth rapped into a hot, blue box in West Texas. I looked across at the barber. He sang with all of the enthusiasm of someone who could drink publically for the first time, someone at the center of the party. Someone who knew where he was. He knew all of the words and so did I.


Night brings us these things, the splitting second of the base, collisions without contact. Darkness consumes and dissolves with intent and then it weeps stars over the bones of its meals.


Binary stars are two stars that orbit a common center of mass. Gravity isn’t strong enough to pull them away from the fated ellipse they are locked in. By calculating the orbits of both of the stars in a binary system, it is possible to calculate the mass of each of the stars. From this, the radius and the density of the star can also be estimated. Using this information, astrophysicists can calculate a mass-luminosity relationship, which is then used to estimate the mass of a single star. More than half of the stars in our sky might be part of binary systems.

There are four main types of binary stars. One of these is the eclipsing binary. When viewed from the Earth, if the orbital ellipse traced by the two stars in the system, sits at a certain angle, the stars in their orbits will eclipse one another. When this happens, the brightness of the stars decreases as one is hidden wholly or partially behind the other

Eclipsing binaries are variable stars, not because the light of the individual components vary but because of the eclipses. If one of the stars is larger than the other, one will be obscured by a total eclipse while the other will be obscured by an annular eclipse.

An annular eclipse occurs when the Sun and Moon are exactly in line, but the apparent size of the Moon is smaller than that of the Sun. Hence the Sun appears as a very bright ring, surrounding the dark disk of the Moon.[10]


Imagine a hungry black hole in the sun. A flaming star with warm, dark silence as its center.


…how narrow, how incalculably narrow, is the true and actual present. Of that time which we call the present, hardly a hundredth part but belongs either to a past which has fled, or to a future which is still on the wing. It has perished, or it is not born. It was or it is not. Yet even this approximation to the truth is infinitely false. For again subdivide that solitary drop, which was only found to represent the present, into a lower series of similar fractions, and the actual present which you arrest measures now but the thirty-sixth-millionth of an hour; and so by infinite declensions the true and very present, in which only we live and enjoy, will vanish into a mote of a mote, distinguishable only by a heavenly vision. Therefore the present, which only man possesses, offers less capacity for his footing than the slenderest film that ever a spider twisted from her womb. Therefore, also in this incalculable shadow from the narrowest pencil of moonlight, is more transitory than geometry can measure, or thought of an angel can overtake. The time which is, contracts to a mathematical point; and even that point perishes a thousand times before we can utter its birth. All is finite in the present; and even that finite is infinite in its velocity of flight towards death.[11]

[1] Carey, Peter. “A Windmill in the West.” Exotic Pleasures. Sydney: Pan Books, 1980.
[2] Lowry, Malcolm. Under the Volcano. New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1947. p 13.
[3] From the Guide to the Lost Mine Trail, Big Bend National Park, Texas. Ed. Superintendent, Southwestern National Monuments. Arizona: Southwestern Monuments Association, Gila Pueblo, Globe, 1956.
[4] DeLillo, Don. Point Omega. London: Picador, 2010. p 7.
[5] Conrad, Joseph. “Typhoon.” The Secret Sharer and Other Stories. New York: Dover Publications, 1993. p 25.
[6] Conrad, Joseph. “Typhoon.”The Secret Sharer and Other Stories. New York: Dover Publications, 1993. p. 35.
[7] DeLillo, Don. Point Omega. London: Picador, 2010. p. 49.
[8] Lowry, Malcolm. Under the Volcano. New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1947. p. 334.
[9] Martinez, Ivan. E-mail message to Sarah Jones. 22 April 2014.
[10] Binary Star definition.
[11] De Quincey, Thomas. “Suspiria De Profundis.” (First published in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine in 1845.) Confessions of an English Opium-Eater and Other Writings. Ed. Barry Milligan. London: Penguin Group, 2003.

Flamin’ Stars
Sarah Jones, Julika and Ivan Martinez, 2014
Concept, text and reading by Sarah Jones (AUS)
Sound production by Julika (GER)
Design by Ivan Martinez (MEX)


Sarah would like to thank Julika, Ivan, Renee, Christo, Alex, Janine, Casco, and the Dutch Art Institute.

See also: TAAK Summer School: 2nd Edition

Repurposing the Los Angeles Aqueduct as a Pathway for Sacred Pilgrimages | Tyler Stallings

Posted on by admin1963 Posted in Fall 2013, Practices | Comments Off on Repurposing the Los Angeles Aqueduct as a Pathway for Sacred Pilgrimages | Tyler Stallings

Photographs by Tyler Stallings

The year 2013 is the centenary of the Los Angles Department of Water and Power’s Los Angeles Aqueduct, an engineer’s 233-mile dream. A small fraction, 24 miles, is an open ditch, along with 37 miles of lined channels, 12 miles of steel and concrete pipeline, or siphons, 52 miles of concrete tunnels under the desert, plus the most notable and visible sections, the 98 miles of open-air concrete conduits. I will be visiting sections of each from the viewpoint of a future Aridtopia, a speculative, utopian, desert-based community that encompasses southern California. In its future, the aqueduct’s water flow will be shuttered as a matter of principal, based on sustainability and restitution to the Owens Valley.  But, even though it will be dry, it will still exist as The Great Incision in the Mojave Desert, or more simply, the Incision. How could it be repurposed in a way that reconnects people to the land and the water?

Aridtopia is a state of desert mind. It is a place where the most valuable commodity is fresh water, rather than oil, diamonds or gold. Hot, dry winds; unrelenting sunshine; gritty sand in your crevices; a weathered sign that reads “Tropical Oasis,” evoking impossibility. It is a place that is around the world: Mojave, Sahara, Atacama, Arabian, Sonoran, Artic and many other places where precipitation is almost absent. Robes, vented hats, snakebite kits; jackets for the cool night since there is little moisture to hold the heat as the sun sets.

The satellite image on my smart phone reveals the linear lines of the concrete aqueduct cutting through the Owens Valley. An extraterrestrial might consider rightly, while peering through its equivalent of a telescope, that they are canals carrying water across the planet’s surface to cities. Their correct estimation would be in contrast to the incorrect interpretation of blurry images of Mars seen through telescopes in the late 1800s, which created optical illusions that suggested crisscrossing canals on the Martian surface and thus:  life exists!

Today, as we consider settling the planet Mars, or Jupiter’s moon, Titan, we ask ourselves—from where will the water come? The next question that we ask: is there life beyond Earth, and does it exist in the harsh conditions of either the remnants of an atmosphere or the frozen seas of methane and ethane? These are the same questions that a nascent city on planet Earth in southern California asked in the early twentieth century.

Los Angeles needed water in order to realize its potential in a near desert environment. From where will it come? The answer was the Owens River. The next question: will this affect life in the Owens Valley? No, as there are only the scattered Paiute and Shoshone people and settler-ranchers using the land.

So, like the potential futures of Mars and Titan, the Owens Valley became a colony of Los Angeles. The city bought the land and the water rights for the Los Angeles Aqueduct.  It began to flow in 1913, allowing for the growth of Los Angeles from a city of just over 100,000 people on 44 square miles in 1900 to over 500,000 people on 364 square miles by 1920. Rather than terraforming Mars into a human-habitable planet, Los Angeles deformed the Owens Valley and reformed itself as a livable city.

I begin my journey on the outskirts of what may one day be Aridtopian boundaries in a former region of the U.S., in order to evaluate the repurposing of the Los Angeles Aqueduct. I drive a silver Mini Cooper, near the same size as the Mars Curiosity rover, exploring on Earth an arid landscape and the Incision.

Pearblossom, California, U.S. Route 18

I wear a green baseball cap to protect the beginning of a bald spot from the sun. My back is perspiring from leaning against a faux-leather car seat, despite wearing a thin, cotton, and plaid buttoned shirt. My vision is intermittently blurry because of the dry air as my contact lens need to slip and slide across moisture on my eyeball in order to work effectively.

The farther I drive away from Los Angeles, toward the Mojave Desert, the more the blue dots of swimming pools disappear from my phone’s satellite images. I am leaving my home. The Earth’s blue, watery surface barely registers from the Voyager 1’s viewpoint of 11 billion miles away. It is about to leave our solar system for interstellar space—the first human-crafted device to do so. No more water. No more Earth.

I drive past old, sun-bleached, drive-in motels, still advertising free HBO and air-conditioning. There is an erasure of signs. The lettering fades and peels from the sun, designating  past purpose: gas station, motel, roadside bar. The cloudless sky and the relentless sun send text into oblivion. Perhaps this will help the future Aridtopian squat in the questionably abandoned structures and then post a new sign: “Last Border Stop Between Aridtopia and the United States of America.”

Heading north on the 18, I turn left onto Longview Road, prompted by a sign that promotes a section of the L.A. Aqueduct as a fishing spot.

I drive up a paved road into the hills, turning off onto a dirt road that leads to the Los Angeles Aqueduct that is not visible from the road. I locate it by satellite on my phone. It is so well hidden here. Standing on its concrete banks, I watch the water flow smoothly and constantly. Perfect engineering. No trees on the banks nor boulders in the channel to thwart the pull of water down a steady decline from over 3,500 feet in the northern end of the Owens Valley to Los Angeles. The water flows on its own; a visible reminder of an invisible force—gravity. Claims have been made that when it poured fourth in 1913, William Mulholland announced, “There it is! Take it!” My objective as a future Aridtopian is to reconsider this sentiment. One day, I may stand upon a purposefully dry aqueduct and announce, “There, it was never meant to be!”

The concrete aqueduct is a miniature valley. Its hard, sloping walls are like the steep, sheer grades of the Sierra Nevada and the Inyo White Mountains with the once fertile Owens Valley between them. It would be hard to pull myself out if I fell in because there is so little that can be grabbed. I suppose that I would float downstream, like a new day Huckleberry Finn, meeting characters of the desert along the way, until I slid into one of the several reservoirs along the aqueduct’s route. And just as Mark Twain’s character satirized old, deep-rooted attitudes by Southerners pining for the days before the Civil War, I will become known as No-Job Mesquite, and would offer scathing observations on entrenched views toward water-use.


If the aqueduct were dry,  it could provide a protective trade route, shielded against the daytime desert heat where it is below ground, and against nighttime chill since the concrete will radiate heat absorbed from the sun. Vendors could set up shop too, alongside the upper banks. A narrow track could be laid down the center whereby gravity pulls carts down. Another track could be for carts pulled upslope with ropes.

Creosote bush, Mormon Tea shrub, and Mojave yucca surround the concrete aqueduct with its deep, flowing water. They are spaced apart, creating less competition for water and mineral resources. The Paiute, who were the first inhabitants of the valley, once lived spaced apart in smaller family groups. The Cahuilla in southern California did too. They divided when the group reached 200 or so. The idea of living together as a larger tribe was forced by settler governments more interested in containment than dispersion. I hope that the Paiute, or the Numa, as they call their people, and future Aridtopians will be able to live by their own fates.

Centuries ago, water flowed into imperial ancient Rome from the countryside via beautifully engineered, arched aqueducts. Los Angeles is imperious too, treating the Owens Valley as a resource-colony. The concrete aqueduct is a prison for the water. The snowpack—the blood of the mountains—is being drained slowly.

I am sweating profusely in the near 100-degree July heat in the Mojave Desert. A lizard scrambles along the concrete embankment. I will not allow my water to drain from me into the aqueduct.

Jawbone Canyon, northeast of Mojave, California, U.S. Route 14

I drive north from Pearblossom, past the town of Mojave and the Tehachapi Pass Wind Farm—hundreds of single- and double-blade turbines spinning in the wind—and pull off at Jawbone Canyon, named for hills that resemble mandibles. In the 1800s, several gold mines dotted the landscape. Now, it’s the site of one of the largest sections of the L.A. Aqueduct’s metal siphons.

A stark white line crosses the desert surface. It is one segment of a miles-long, nearly seven-foot in circumference, metal pipe, or siphon, transporting water from the Owens Valley River to Los Angeles. The siphon’s extreme straightness suggests a contemporary rendition of the ancient animal-shaped Nazca Lines in Peru, some seemingly visible from an aerial viewpoint only. This same pipe zigzags atop hills in the distance, perhaps suggesting a slithering rattlesnake over the landscape, at least as seen from the sky, or the satellite image on my phone. The reflection of the sun off the chalk-like paint covering the pipe is blinding. I walk across the powdered desert sand to touch its side. No sensation of rushing water—of the Sierra Nevada’s blood—beneath the metal, as I had expected.

Several fire rings are near the siphon. They are made from nearby stray stones, and placed in a circle. They are left by what I call “desert-reckers.” (Those that use the desert for recreation, such as off-roading, do so within a federal embrace of “land of many uses.” An Aridtopian might define it as “wreck-creation.”) I imagine the fire circles as demarcating one of many resting places for future Aridtopian pilgrimages along the aqueduct’s route.

The Mojave Desert is a land of many uses: people retreat into it for the landscape’s solitude, quietness, and stillness, seeking spiritual replenishment. At the same time, the U.S. military maintains several bases such as Edwards Air Force Base, just south of Jawbone Canyon, and China Lake, north of here in the Indian Wells Valley. The desert provides the military bases with plenty of land for secrecy and distance from a civilian population for their protection. Experimental rockets and planes do blow up and they crash hard.

How could these siphons be repurposed? Could they provide a pathway from Aridtopia into Owens Valley that would provide even more protection from the elements than the concrete aqueduct sections that I saw earlier in Pearblossom?

With the siphons, ventilation slits could be cut into their metal sides so that air circulates continuously. This will allow pilgrims and travellers to traverse the desert in coolness. Doorways would be cut into the sides so that people can enter and exit at will, perhaps to sit around one of the fire rings. Flat platforms could be erected atop the curved surface so that people could climb out and up on to them for camping at night, away from snakes, coyotes, and scorpions.

However, these seem like only practical suggestions. There’s an opportunity to use the aqueduct for enacting a sacred journey, seeking spiritual truth. Maybe it could be a journey that the youth will take as they transition into “deserthood?” It would be like walking in a dream as they walk in the pitch-darkness of the siphon with their eyes wide open; severing their tie with the outside world. It would be a waking “dreamdesert” ritual.

Keeler, California, located on the east side of Owens Lake, U.S. Route 395

I leave my Aridtopian fantasies behind at Jawbone, finally merging onto the 395, heading further north into the Owens Valley. I drive past the Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake on my right, or east side, in Indian Wells Valley. It’s the Navy’s largest base and the source for a variety of rockets and missiles with desert-animal inspired names, such as Sidewinder and Shrike. The first is a venomous pit-viper and the second is a bird known for its feeding habit of impaling lizards and insects on the thorns of plants or barbed-wire fences, giving them the nickname, “butcher bird.” Whether in Nazca Lines, lengthy metal pipes carrying water, or missiles, desert animals are evoked to represent otherworldly power.

Finally, I reach the southern tip of the desiccated Owens Lake. I turn right off the 395 onto the 190, which curves around the lake’s east side, reaching an intersection.  If I continue on 190, I’ll enter into Death Valley, but if I turn left on the 136, then I’ll continue skirting the perimeter of the lake, until I reconnect with the 395 at its northern end.

My MiniCooperMarsRover curves around the depleted, dusty, briny Owens Lake. Large expanses of salt flats lie at its center. When there is some rain, the water mixes with the salt and other minerals, making a small brine pond. Brine-fly larvae from its edges once sustained the Paiute. But, there is no more water. No more reflections of the sky on a shimmering, undulating, liquid surface.

The lake’s main contribution for decades has been alkali dust storms, since the aqueduct began tapping the Owens River above it. As much as four million tons of dust blows off the lakebed, spreading throughout the United States as one the country’s largest polluters.

I pass the DWP’s Dust Mitigation headquarters. They dump gravel, encourage some vegetation growth, and spray water to tap down the dust. The process has been successful to a degree, but has cost over a billion dollars, and has been executed only because of a court order.

I drive farther north and then stop at Keeler, midway on the east side, off the 136. Stepping out of my MiniCooperMarsRover, I walk among dilapidated, petrified, sucked-dry homes. The upkeep of some places suggests habitation, but it is still a ghost town;  one of hopes and dreams turned into dust. It was built when the Cerro Gordo silver mine was active from 1866 to 1957, 9,000 feet up into the hills from here. The ore was once brought down for smelting in Keeler, and then mule trains would take tons of silver to Los Angeles.

I come upon a post and lintel entrance to nothing. The lintel is a surfboard sign reading, “Keeler Beach. Swim, Surf, Fish. Camps For Rent.” There is no more shoreline since there is no more water.

I read once that in the early 1990s, Dr. Scott Stine, a paleoclimatologist at California State University at Hayward, examined centuries-old tree stumps at Mono Lake, exposed after water levels dropped when the Los Angeles Aqueduct drained water from the Owens Valley. He was able to demonstrate that long drought periods are the norm in the California region. The relative wet period, which is coming to an end, and in which we now live, is the anomaly.

Stine gathered additional evidence from fulgurites at Owens Lake, glassy structures formed by the fusion of sand by lightning strikes and made visible after the disappearance of the lake. He found fulgurites from both decades and centuries past, whose trapped electrons allowed for dating back further than expected. This suggested that the lake had been dry many times earlier, during which a lightning strike would have had the opportunity to hit a dry lakebed, thus, creating the fulgurites. In other words, there were many, long-lasting droughts in the past. Pilgrims could treat the fulgurites as talismans.

Bishop, California, U.S. Route 395

After Keeler, I skirt the remaining east perimeter of Owens Lake, intersecting with the 395 again. Then, I drive straight through the small towns of Lone Pine, Independence, and Big Pine, arriving in Bishop. It is located above the aqueduct’s intake gates, where water begins to flow from the Owens River into the aqueduct, bypassing the Owens Lake. The river can be found in its unchanneled state in this area.

Bishop is the biggest town along the 395. Along the main street are coffee shops and outfitters for hiking, skiing, and camping around Mammoth Lakes,  just a little further northwest in the Sierra Nevada. I’m now a couple of hundred miles north of my starting point in Pearblossom.

I stop at the Black Sheep Espresso Bar to meet with Alan Bacock. He is the Water Program Coordinator for the Big Pine Paiute Tribe of the Owens Valley, tasked with overseeing water quality and quantity for the reservation.  As a future emissary from Aridtopia, I’ve come to discuss the repurposing of the aqueduct as route of pilgrimage. I am curious about what Alan and other Paiute, or Numa, may propose for the aqueduct.  The Numa lived and survived in the arid environment for thousands of years before settlers arrived in 1859.

Could the dry aqueduct serve as a causeway between Aridtopia and the Paiute, collaborating in the development of a new matrix for the landscape?

I will even suggest that future Aridtopians will assume that in the wake of their Grand Refusal of the Aqueduct, that the Numa may be able to take back the 90 percent ownership in the land by the settler-DWP, and then peacefully evict the remaining settler-ranchers in the Owens Valley.

Keeler and Olancha, on the west side off the 395, could become sites where pilgrims rest. Perhaps there are areas of the lake that could be sectioned off with walls so that water can be pumped in, mix with the salt, and create a salinity  eight times greater than the ocean’s, like that of the Judean Desert’s Dead Sea. Pilgrims could float buoyant on it, their bodies touching nothing hard, losing sense of their own body, confronting their primal self as the interior and exterior boundaries of the body dissolve into the briny water.

Or, perhaps Aridtopians can specialize in huge salt sculptures. The old smelting kilns for the silver ore could be used to prepare a salt solution: bring a vat of water to a rolling boil, keep adding salt until no more salt will dissolve, add food coloring. Then, bring the vat out onto the salt plains of the lake, build a skeletal wood structure over it, dip rope into the vat, then pull it out so that one end of it dangles in the vat and the other end is tied to a spot on the skeletal structure, and then leave it undisturbed. When the salt water begins to cool, the salt molecules will crystallize back into a solid, creating long, salt, multicolored, stalagmites along the rope, eventually becoming a crystalline superstructure in the desert. Temporary sanctuaries can be built in this manner. Maybe even a whole city for pilgrims on the dry Owens Lake.

Clues to the past can be excavated in the form of fulgurites, while these Aridtopian structures are being built for the eventual future.

Map by Tyler Stallings

The Numa may choose to return to the ancestral method of creating canals that branched off the river creeks flowing from the Sierra to water fields. Places in the Owens Valley may even revert to historic gathering spots for the Numa, returning to a life of constant movement and seasonal dwellings.


Alan and I order coffee and then step out to Black Sheep Espresso Bar’s back porch area to sit under an umbrella, shielding us from the sun. Alan is a young man and has a family. His hair is black and his skin is brown. He checks his smart phone often, looking for messages from his wife, daughter, or other Paiute.

We had hoped that it would be a quiet location so that we could hear each other’s comments, but a group sits down at another table a few feet away. They seem to be friends who haven’t seen each other for a while. A couple is from Australia and another woman has just returned from travels in South Africa. Either the world is becoming one big desert or inhabitants of one desert region are attracted to arid regions elsewhere.

Alan provides some history of his people in the valley. My own thoughts, sans-italics, alternate with his.

Long ago, our ancestors realized that water did not come from the sky but flowed from the mountains. They learned long ago to build canals and ditches to irrigate seed-lands with the Sierra runoff. There were no fences or property lines so when settlers came they thought that the land was not being utilized but it was—by us.

Invisibility does not mean lack of presence.

In the past, most of the skirmishes with the settlers had to do with food. The livestock were eating plants that we had cultivated and gathered, such as Blue dicks. We would dig them up and gather the corm. Our most important item were the pinyons from the Inyo and White Mountains. There are still some that are being harvested by the Numa. And then the animals were small game that could not get around anymore due to fences, or livestock taking their food away, so starvation began to happen to us. Then, as we were starving we might kill a cow, for example, and then the rancher would retaliate. Then the military would come in from Fort Independence to protect the settlers. I’m jumping around here on history but you get the point. It’s been a slow dwindling of resources. But, we’ve survived.

To build a fence is to steal from the land. A fence makes one lose one’s soul to the impossibility of containment.

But the Paiute are adaptive. So they adjusted to the new paradigm. This was in the 1860s. Then later the aqueduct brought a second paradigm because there were no jobs with the ranchers since they weren’t getting water either. We’ve always existed, just like the Ancient Bristlecone Pine. I think that you should visit them because they are the oldest living trees, going back 5,000 years or more. They have survived in the most extreme of circumstances. Very little water, poor soil, and constant wind. They are like the Paiute; we still live here and still exist, even though many people have tried to destroy us.

Our people have always used the resources, but not to their limit because we live within it. All things are connected. Our use of water affects vegetation, animals and other people. We definitely see things as sacred. So with that point of view, we will always have a different outlook not only towards water, but life.

2013 marks not only the hundred-year anniversary of the LA Aqueduct but it also marks 150 years when our people were forced to march from Fort Independence to Fort Tejón. We just recently had a gathering, praying for peace and for the land. In fact, I have a friend who is not native, and who is walking from Fort Tejón to show the forced march in reverse, that is, to show better outcomes can happen, even today.

Aridtopians will walk the dry aqueduct upstream, against gravity, to reverse the bad intentions connected to decades of water flowing downstream to Los Angeles.


Alan and I depart after talking for about 90 minutes. He checks his phone for more messages. He suggests that I drive to the nearby Owens Valley Paiute-Shoshone Cultural Center & Museum.

I realize that people come with answers and not questions many times, when I consider Alan’s comments. And, as Alan said during our conversation, “to come with answers often leads to genocide.” He even spoke about his missionary work in Japan and how he did not like using the word “missionary,” as it suggests that one is coming with a mission, that is, with solutions ahead of time. I consider a better Aridtopian title might be “questionary,” that is, someone who comes into unfamiliar territory with questions in order to learn, rather than impose rule.

Toward the end of our conversation, Alan admitted that he’s not sure how to respond at the moment to the possibility of the aqueduct being “shut off,” in terms of what it would mean for his people, the Numa.

We did not discuss it, but having done a little research on the Numa, I am wondering if some form of forgiveness towards the creation of the L.A. Aqueduct can occur, shedding pain and suffering from present-day identities. Perhaps the Numa could line the banks of the aqueduct and enact their mourning ceremony known as the cry dance. Normally, it concludes the mourning of relatives who died the year before.

But in this case, the cry dance would be ending 150 years of mourning their forced marches, of being put on reservations, and of the water being sent away to a city that does not get rain either. Their tears would fall into the dry, cement aqueduct, filling it with hope and courage. The water would spread out in the valley, creating marshes once again, bringing back the green space; that fertility that so surprised the settlers 150 years ago as they crossed over from the sunburnt, brown basin or from a fried Sacramento. It would go down in Numa lore as The Great Dry Cry.

Lone Pine, California, U.S. Route 395

My last break before I drive back nonstop over the imaginary U.S./Aridtopia border is in Lone Pine, one of the larger towns, though still quite small, along the 395. Lone Pine is a one-stoplight town. Just as Bishop is the entryway to Mammoth Lakes, Lone Pine is the entryway to hiking Mount Whitney.

The Lone Pine Indian Reservation is home to Owens Valley Paiute and Shoshone members, and is along the south side of town on both sides of the 395. The Lone Pine Museum of Film History is also located at the south end of Main Street. It’s an old movie house with a towering marquee on its façade and has the snow capped Sierra Nevada as its cinematic backdrop.

I drive up a slight incline, then consult my map, and find the site of the tent city that housed the cast and crew for Gunga Din. The movie was an adventure tale set in nineteenth-century India. According to my guide map, it was about three raucous British soldiers and their water-bearer, Gunga Din, who must stop an uprising by an Indian cult.

These hills are also the site for ancestral stories of the Numa, including one about a giant who pounced and screamed to scare people out of their hiding places, then picked them up and killed them. On his way back up the valley, a water-baby in the Owens Lake outsmarted him, dragged him into the lake, and drowned him.

I stand here amidst the rounded boulders, superimposing water-stories that are centuries apart. I am developing a story about the aqueduct, the Paiute, and Aridtopia. This place will still be here when the chronology of these stories passes, leaving them to exist all at once in this place.

Alan and I talked about this notion a bit in our conversation in Bishop. On one level, the Paiute stories serve a practical purpose: told as warnings to young kids to stay away from places where they might drown by scaring them with a water-baby creature; or as a mnemonic device for remembering the location of sources of water and food. Place connects people with the land itself, rather than emphasizing movement from location to location as an area is exploited for its resources, until it is dead as a source of food, water, and memory.

Focusing on place, rather than time, is one of the biggest mental obstacles for future Aridtopians, since we will have once lived in the United States where “time is of the essence” and “time is money.” It has been said that “time heals all wounds.” Aridtopians may rephrase this sentiment to read as “place heals all wounds.”

In my mind, for future Aridtopians, and for the Numa perhaps, the L.A. Aqueduct has been repurposed conceptually. It has been transformed from an immense mechanism for transporting water into one for transporting one’s spirit. The Incision would become a sacred pathway for rediscovering one’s place within the universe; a desertdreamtrek where one’s consciousness dissolves into the liquid cosmos from which all life has emerged.

Photographs and map by Tyler Stallings.

Tyler Stallings is a writer and curator with a focus on photography, technology, new media, and phenomenology of the body. He serves as artistic director of Culver Center of the Arts and director of Sweeney Art Gallery at University of California, Riverside.